Zach Stich | Daily Journal

Welcome: Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Fergus Falls is one of four ELCA churches in the city.

As questions arise about immigration in the United States and the best steps that should be taken, one Christian denomination has chosen to declare itself on a national level a sanctuary denomination.

On Aug. 7, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), declared itself a sanctuary denomination, committing to supporting and sheltering migrants entering the country. This was voted on at the ELCA’s triennial assembly in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. During the assembly, church leaders participated in a march and prayer vigil at a local Immigration and Customs Enforcement office.

The vote stemmed from a decision by the Metropolitan New York Synod in March to become a “sanctuary synod.” The synod’s decision came after Central American immigrant caravans made their way to the U.S. border. The synod is supporting them with a youth outreach at detention centers, a weekly “Jericho Walk” at a federal plaza, and by engaging in immigration-related policies, among other actions. It also is paying for asylum processing fees and has paid bonds to get migrant minors released from detention.

According to the ELCA’s website, “In its simplest form, becoming a sanctuary denomination means that the ELCA is publicly declaring that walking alongside immigrants and refugees is a matter of faith.” Although the ELCA want to be public and vocal about the decision, how churches incorporate the decision will look different at each location. The site explained that “Welcoming people is not a political issue for us — it is a matter of faith.”

Minnesota has the largest ELCA community in the nation, having 670,000 members of the denomination’s 3.3 million. Fergus Falls has five ELCA churches: First Lutheran Church, Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Zion Lutheran Church, Hope Evangelical Lutheran Church and Augustana Lutheran Church. There are also numerous ELCA denominations throughout the county.

For some, the decision harkens thoughts of the sanctuary movement in the 1980s, a response to restrictive immigration policies. Some of the actions taken by the multidenominational movement violated the law, a step that is not condoned by the ELCA decision or by those helping the refugees.

The Rev. Tom Peterson of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Fergus Falls echoed those sentiments.

“The television media picked up the decision and brought on three panelists that were not authorized to speak on the ELCA meeting,” Peterson said. “They said that the church would be bringing in illegal immigrants, which is not true, and that the immigrants carry diseases, which is also not true.”

Peterson also mentioned that the word “sanctuary” has had negative connotations in certain circles recently, but local congregations have provided aid for immigrants in the past including offering English classes.

Although the decision was made at the national level, locally, Peterson stated the implementation of the declaration will vary for each ELCA congregation. “We don’t know the full scope of the declaration just yet.”

Peterson explained that the assembly may make the decision, but that the larger church cannot mandate its churches to follow a strict rule.

“There is a lot of the things that the church stands for,” Rev. Gretchen Enoch of First Lutheran in Fergus Falls said. “We can’t do everything that the larger church does. We are not for or against the decision.” Enoch mentioned that she didn’t expect to incorporate anything new at this time.

“I think that (being public) about this will bring about really great discussions on immigration. We are about loving our neighbors and we are going to have different ideas of how to do this in the complex world that we live in. This means different things to those on the border, to those in New York and to those that are here. That is worth discussion,” Peterson added.

Phone messages were left for Augustana Church, while Zion Lutheran Church returned a phone call but its minister is currently out of the country.


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